Skip to main content

Brāhmaṇas and Āraṇ


BRĀHMAAS AND ĀRAYAKAS . The Brāhmaas are the oldest Indian Sanskrit prose texts, usually dated from the first half or the middle of the last millennium bce. Their chronology, like that of most classical Indian texts, is uncertain and hinges on equally uncertain external factors such as the dates for the gveda, for the grammarian Pāini, and for the Buddha; moreover, the time span between their first formulation and their final redaction may have been considerable. The word brāhmaa means a statement on brahman, that is, on the cosmic importance or meaning of the Vedic sacrificial ritual, whether of each individual act (karman ) and formula (mantra ), or of the combination of such acts and formulas that constitute a particular sacrifice. Brāhmaa then becomes the generic term applied to such collections of statements or commentaries. As a class of texts, they deal in a step-by-step, rite-by-rite manner with the whole of the śrauta ("solemn") ritual. Together with the usually metrical mantra s, the prose Brāhmaas constitute the śruti (whence the adjective śrauta ), the corpus of the "revealed" Veda.

The Brāhmaas follow the division of the four Vedas and the corresponding parts of the ritualgveda, recitation; Yajurveda, performance; Sāmaveda, chanting; and Atharvaveda, officiating. The central and oldest group of Brāhmaas are those of the Yajurveda, which is concerned with the overall scheme of the ritual process. In the older versions or śākhā s ("branches") of the Yajurveda, the mantra and Brāhmaa parts are intermingled in the Sahitās of the relevant "branch" (Kāhaka, Maitrāyaī, and Taittirīya Sahitā s together forming the Ka or "Black" Yajurveda ). In the younger Śukla or "White" Yajurveda, the Sahitā with the mantra s pertaining to the ritual acts is separated from the Brāhmaa (the Śatapatha Brāhmaa ), as is also the case with the gveda and the Sāmaveda, while the Atharvaveda has appended to its Sahitā (which stands apart from the basic threefold Veda) a Brāhmaa that is only loosely connected and derivative. In this way the Brāhmaas developed into a separate class or genre characterized by a standardized expository prose style. As a genre they remained, however, tied up with the śrauta ritual and came to a halt with the ultimate institutionalization of the associated ceremonies. On the other hand they spawned the productive genre of the Upaniads, which originally were part of the Brāhmaa literature but eventually turned away from the ritual to treat meta-ritualistic and esoteric speculation.

The ritualistic thought of the Brāhmaas owes its origins to a fundamental change in worldview that gave rise to a new conception of sacrifice. Though direct and coherent information on the ritual of sacrifice preceding the Brāhmaa texts is lacking, they do contain in their explanations many scattered and archaic but telling references that allow us to reconstruct a rough outline of previous ritual practices. In fact, the Brāhmaa authors show themselves to be aware of restructuring the sacrifice within the context of a new, rationalized system of ritual. The old pattern of sacrifice was intimately bound up with conflict, contest, and battle, corresponding with the mythological motif of the enmity and combat between the conquering gods (deva s) and their adversaries, the lordly asura s. The agonistic sacrificial festival was the central institution in an essentially tragic-heroic worldview. Its destructive violence is preserved in hypertrophic form in the all-embracing epic war of the Mahābhārata. The constant threat of sacrally sanctioned violence, death, and destruction provided the impetus for the intensive reflection on sacrifice and the construction of the śrauta ritual expounded in the Brāhmaas.

The main thrust of this new exposition of ritual practice served to remove the agonistic festival with its unsettling dangers and uncertain outcome from its central position and to replace it with the absolutely failsafe order of a mechanistic, rational rite. To this end, sacrifice was taken out of its agonistic context. This meant the exclusion of the adversary from the place of sacrifice. With that, sacrifice became a strictly personal affair of the individual sacrificer (acting in perfect unison with the priestly technicians of the ritual engaged by him for the purpose). Hence the striking absence of sacra publica from the śrauta ritual. Even in the royal rituals the king is just a single sacrificer and as such no different from a commoner. In other words, sacrifice was desocialized and set apart in a separate sphere of its own, transcending the social world. Outside society the sacrificer creates his own conflict-free, perfectly ordered universe, subject only to the absolute rules of the ritual.

Mythologically, this ritualized agon is expressed in the identification of the sacrificer with the creator god Prajāpati, the Lord of Creatures, who personifies the monistic conception of sacrifice, being himself both victim and sacrificer. Through sacrifice Prajāpati makes the beings go forth from his dismembered body, recalling the relatively late gveda hymn (10.90) that celebrates the cosmogonic sacrifice by the gods of Purua, the Primordial Being. In this respect Prajāpati supersedes the warrior-god Indra and his cosmogonic martial exploits. The outcome no longer depends on prowess in the sacrificial contest involving martial arts such as charioteering and verbal skills, but on unerring knowledge of the complicated but systematic (and therefore readily learnable) body of ritual rules.

In contrast to the poetic or visionary metaphor, which was based on numerical equivalence (sapad, sakhyāna ), the mainstay of Brahmanic thought in elaborating the ritual system was identification in uncomplicated "this-is-that" terms. Elements of the ritual (mantra s, recitations, chants, acts, ritual implements, the place of sacrifice and its various parts) are identified with those of the universe and of the self. In this way the course of the universe, of man, and of his life are reduced to the denominator of the ritual. In the last resort it is the sacrificer who, through his identification with Prajāpati, the God-Sacrifice, integrates the ritually ordered universe in himself. We are here on the threshold of the Upanisadic doctrine of the identity of the ātman, the self, with the brahman (principium omnium ) a doctrine that announces itself already in a passage of the Śatapatha Brāhmaa (

It is possible to view the Brāhmaas' conception of sacrifice as "a piece of magic pure and simple," enabling the sacrificer to obtain fulfillment of his wishescattle, progeny, prestige, power, health, long lifeand indeed the texts are effusive in promising such rewards to the sacrificer. It is, however, a subtly different matter when, as is frequently the case, heaven and immortality are brought in. The problem of death appears as the central motif of the Brahmanic cosmico-ritual system, which is aimed at escaping from the cyclic life-death alternation (the dreaded "re-death," punarmtyu ) by making for oneself an immortal body in the hereafter in accordance with the transcendent order of the ritual. Although the ritual system of the Brāhmaas remains open to magic interpretation, this should not obscure their rigorously systemic reflection on the sacrifice resulting in the maximization of the structuring capacity of ritual and the construction of an absolute, comprehensive, and exhaustive system of rules. In this sense we can speak of a "science of ritual" (cf. Hermann Oldenberg's view of the Brāhmaas as "vorwissenschaftliche Wissenschaft"). Although the term brāhmaa refers primarily to the ritual's cosmic importance, expressed in the form of identifications, the śrauta tradition gives pride of place to the system of rules as such. Thus the Brāhmaas are already characterized early on as ritual injunctions (codanā ), while the explanatory discussions (arthavāda ) including the statements of the cosmic importance of the rites, illustrated by mythological tales and relations of past eventsare qualified as secondary, a mere "remainder." Only the pure systematics of the ritual count. In the final analysis, the potential for magic is rejected. The ritual system stands by itself, divorced from mundane reality and unaffected by its uses or abuses.

At this point the development of the ritual bifurcates. On the one hand, the doctrine of the Brāhmaas gave rise to the prescriptive handbooks, the Śrautasūtras, and ultimately, via the meta-rules contained in them, to the classical Mīmāsā school of jurisprudence. On the other hand, the statements on brahman, that is, the cosmic importance of the rites contained in the arthavāda parts, prefigure the musings of the Upaniads, which go on to form the final series of anskrit prose commentaries and speculation classified as Vedānta, the "conclusion of the Veda."

Ārayaka, literally pertaining to the wilderness (araya ), is the name of a loosely defined class of texts that form part of or are attached to the Brāhmaas. Their distinctive trait is that the material contained in themboth mantra and Brāhmaais traditionally qualified as secret or dangerous and therefore has to be studied outside the settled community (grāma ) in the wilderness while submitting to restrictive rules of behavior (vrata ). Why these texts should be so classified is not explained. Although the Ārayakas vary in their contents, they are mainly concerned with the Mahāvrata, originally a New Year festival with agonistic and orgiastic features, and with parts of the ritual concerning the fire, especially the Pravargya (milk offering), featuring an earthen pot brought to glowing temperature in the fire, while funerary rites also occur. The latter item might explain the putatively secret or dangerous nature of the Ārayakas, but funerary rites as such do not form a commonly shared or preeminent part of these texts. Perhaps their common denominator could be found in that their contents were still recognized as being specifically bound up with life outside the settled community, that is, not, as has been erroneously thought, the life of the ascetic (vānaprastha ), but of the nomadic warriors of old setting out with their fires and cattle into the wilds. An indication to this effect may be contained in the formulas giving the names of the divine warriors, the Maruts, and in those celebrating the dread forms or bodies (ghorā tanva ) of the fire. Since systematization of the ritual was aimed at the exclusion of the warrior and his deeds, the relevant traditions were relegated to the margin of the ritualistic Brāhmaas. On the other hand, the wilderness was of old the typical locus of revelatory vision, which therefore became associated with the warrior. The links between wilderness, warrior, and vision may have been the original basis for the reputation of danger and secrecy attached to the Ārayakas, while their marginalization may explain the mixed and disjointed nature of their contents (to which later materials may have been added) as hallowed remnants of the otherwise discredited world of the warrior that could not be easily fitted into the ritual system. For the same reasons, however, it would seem that the Ārayakas offered the proper slot for attaching the Upaniads to the ritualistic Brāhmaas. In this respect it is interesting that in their form the Upaniads recall an important aspect of the warrior-and-seer phenomenon, namely the verbal contest (brahmodya ) on the hidden cosmic connection.

See Also

Brahman; Prajāpati; Upaniads; Vedas; Vedism and Brahmanism.


A general survey of the Brāhmaa and Ārayaka literature is to be found in Jan Gonda's Vedic Literature (Wiesbaden, 1975), pp. 339432.

The classic studies of the Brāhmaa texts are Sylvain Lévi's La doctrine du sacrifice dans les Brâhmaas (1898; 2d ed., Paris, 1966) and Hermann Oldenberg's Die Weltanschauung der Brāhmaa-Texte (Göttingen, 1919). The proto-scientific nature of these texts has recently been emphasized again in Frits Staal's P. D. Gune Memorial Lectures, The Science of Ritual (Poona, 1982); see also his "The Meaninglessness of Ritual," Numen 26 (1979): 222, which, however, passes over the Brāhmaa explanations based on cosmic identifications; see my own comment in Festschrift R. N. Dandekar (Poona, 1984).

For the Ārayakas see Hermann Oldenberg's still valuable "Ārayaka," Nachrichten von der Kgl. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen (1915), pp. 382401, reprinted in Kleine Schriften, edited by Klaus Janert (Wiesbaden, 1967), pp. 419438. Louis Renou's "Le passage des brāhmaa aux upaniads," Journal of the American Oriental Society 73 (1953): 138144, traces the linkage between Brāhmaa, Ārayaka, and Upaniads.

Translations include Julius Eggeling's The Śatapatha-Brāhmaa, 5 vols. (18821900; reprint, Delhi, 1963); Arthur Berriedale Keith's The Veda of the Black Yajus School Entitled Taittirīya-Sanhitā, 2 vols. (1914; reprint, Delhi, 1967), and Rigveda Brahmaas (1920; reprint, Delhi, 1971); and Willem Caland's Pañcaviśa Brāhmaa (Calcutta, 1931) and Das Jaiminīya-Brāhmaa in Auswahl (Amsterdam, 1919). Of the Ārayakas Keith has translated the Śānkhyāna (London, 1908) and the Aitareya (Oxford, 1909).

Jan C. Heesterman (1987)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Brāhmaṇas and Āraṇ." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 15 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Brāhmaṇas and Āraṇ." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 15, 2018).

"Brāhmaṇas and Āraṇ." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 15, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.